Montessori school charter request

Students use a "grammar box" as they work on the parts of speech in the elementary classroom at Isthmus Montessori Academy in Madison in January.

Two Madison institutions made efforts on Monday to address what they see as past race-related failings:

Madison Mayor Paul Soglin laid out options for removing or downplaying a monument to confederate soldiers at Forest Hill Cemetery, and UW-Madison chancellor Rebecca Blank announced the creation of a group to come to terms with the history of two Ku Klux Klan groups on campus in the 1920s.

Monday didn’t find the Madison School Board in the mood for any racial reckoning, though. In a district that’s long failed to close achievement gaps between white students and students of color, it effectively opted for more of the same.

By a 4-3 vote, the board rejected a plan supported by district administrators and studied for 11 months to convert the private Isthmus Montessori Academy into the district’s third charter and first Montessori school, beginning in 2018.

There were no guarantees IMA’s approach would be a game-changer for even one of the 212 students it would have eventually enrolled, much less the 15,000 students of color in the district.

Those voting no — TJ Mertz, Kate Toews, Nicki Vander Meulen and Anna Moffit — also had some reasonable objections having to do with who would get preference for attending the school, the school’s projected budget deficit, whether enough staff and resources would be devoted to special ed students and other matters.

But as is often the case among Madison’s elected leaders, the no votes seemed intent on making the perfect the enemy of the good.

Toews said during Monday’s meeting that she had no “philosophical opposition to alternatives” like charters but wanted to do alternatives in “the best way that we can use our funds, the best way that we can target those funds.”

I’m guessing there are a lot of parents of black students in Madison who would be happy to have greater access to a Madison public school that works well for their children, rather than wait for the “best” to maybe come along some day.

Instead, while Madison has made closing the racial achievement gap a priority for decades, enthusiasm has waned in recent years for alternatives to Madison’s traditional — and for black children, failing — approach to education.

There were three district charter schools in 2011; now there are two. In addition to the board’s rejection of IMA on Monday, it voted against a plan to open Madison Preparatory Academy in 2011. It was to be aimed at low-income students of color.

Presented with an achievement gap that seems serious enough for some risk-taking, the board has proven itself risk-averse.

“Big chances are not how you necessarily bring educational improvement to a significant number of students,” Mertz told me. “Incrementalism is how most change and improvement happens.”

In a similar vein, Moffit told me she would have preferred a “slow-grow” public Montessori option, or one that transitions to a Montessori model grade-by-grade and year-by-year.

The School Board better hope that slow and steady wins the race (so to speak) to close the achievement gap, because it sure isn’t in any hurry to take the occasional chance on anything that might be quicker.

Capital W: Plug in to Wisconsin politics

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Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or crickert@madison.com, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ). His column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.